There’s not much Ruth Riley hasn’t accomplished on the basketball court. She is part of an elite group of female basketball players who have won an NCAA title (at Notre Dame in 2001), a WNBA title (with Detroit in 2003 and 2006), and an Olympic gold medal (at the 2004 Athens Games).
Most recently, she has taken on the challenge of serving as the general manager for one of her former teams – the San Antonio Silver Stars – and it’s those lessons she learned en route to the world’s biggest stage that continue to guide her every step of the way.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Riley talks about growing up in Indiana, how she became a Christian, how her faith drives her to serve others around the globe, and the commitment it takes to become an Olympic athlete:
Chad Bonham: Talk about growing up in basketball crazed Indiana.
Ruth Riley: I grew up on a farm in Macy. My mother raised me and my older sister and younger brother. It was just a typical country life. Growing up in Indiana, basketball was huge. It was a pretty natural fit for me to start playing, but I wasn’t very good growing up. I was very tall and uncoordinated and lanky, but I just played for fun. I was 25 inches at birth and I really didn’t stop growing. Every class I’ve ever been in, I’ve always been the tallest.
Bonham: Your time at Notre Dame was pretty special. How did that team manage to win a national championship?
Riley: Throughout my four years, you could see the progression as our team got better. For me, it was great to win a national championship and not many players can finish their collegiate season with a win. It was truly an amazing experience but it’s also about the legacy that you leave behind and being a part of building up that program. Now, when I go back, their season ticket base is 10 times the size it was when I was a freshman. Being a part of that is very fulfilling.
Bonham: The WNBA was four years old when you graduated college. How did that change your perspective on a possible professional career?
Riley: When I was younger, the dream was to play in the Olympics because that was the only thing that we knew was possible after college. It was a new revelation when the WNBA was formed.
Bonham: How did you deal with the unusual circumstance of playing for a team (Miami Sol) that was disbanded?
Riley: It was a shock at first. I had just bought a place in Miami and I loved my teammates. I loved playing here. I was actually playing in Spain when I got the call saying that the team wasn’t going to be around anymore. But I just think it was a test of faith. If you truly believe that you’re in God’s hands and as long as you’re following the path that He’s laid before you and you’re seeking His will, then you’re open to a change in direction whenever it comes up. So for me, honestly, I was at peace with it.
Bonham: What has your spiritual journey looked like?
Riley: When I was growing up, going to church was not optional. My mom was very strict and we went to church every Sunday without question. As I got older, I started to fight it a little bit, but looking back once I got through high school and college, I’m very grateful for that foundation. When I got old enough to make a decision on my own, my mom sat back and she let us choose. I definitely chose to seek Him even more. It wasn’t until I was on my own and I got into the professional world and had to take care of myself and had the pressure of playing professional athletes when I truly relied on my relationship with God and became more diligent in seeking Him and reading the Word and trying to understand His will for my life more.
Bonham: What’s been the driving force behind your desire to serve others?
Riley: You just have to open the book of Matthew and see that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. Throughout the whole New Testament you see so many examples of Him serving others and putting others first. That’s always been something that has been relevant to me in my faith and an understanding that serving is a part of (my faith).
Bonham: Is serving others something all Christians should feel compelled to do?
Riley: If you love God, you’ll obey Him. So your act of worship is service. If you’re truly worshipping and loving and admiring who God is and what He’s done in your life, it’s going to be a natural process to serve.
Bonham: How does the life of Christ inspire you in this area?
Riley: Just look at the way he treated children. He welcomed them in and called them to Him. In the society of those times, children were to be seen and not heard. Then you look at how he went to the outcasts, the Gentiles and the Samaritans and whoever were not the customary people you were supposed to hang out with. It was in His actions and his amazing love for everyone and how He reached out His hand showed forgiveness and grace and humility to everyone. He was willing to not only interact with them, but also to serve them.
Bonham: What are some opportunities you’ve been given to serve both stateside and overseas?
Riley: Every trip to Africa that I’ve been on has been an act of serving others and in some way trying to help people better their situations and to show them that somebody cares about them. I’ve also worked with Miami Rescue Mission and I helped build a playground in a poor neighborhood there. But service doesn’t have to be an organized event. It’s giving of your time, which for a lot of people is the hardest thing to do. It’s honestly just making yourself available and willingly giving your time to somebody else. When I was in Africa working with kids, it was that time of interaction and making them feel valued, making them feel like they’re important that means the most. Part of what we were doing there was to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention and to teach leadership building. We went there and taught the youth and the coaches how to be leaders in their community, how to be good role models, how to open dialogue HIV and AIDS. I would go out on the basketball court and spend time with the kids doing drills and immediately the next day we could see that they were so eager to learn and they were already implementing the things we had just taught them. There’s just a hunger for somebody to come in and give them guidance and help them. It’s been amazing. A lot of people look at the problem of AIDS and Africa and it becomes overwhelming because it’s so big. But you can make a huge difference in one community and the next community and you never know what kind of impact that is going to make.
Bonham: What are some of the blessings you’ve received from serving others?
Riley: There are so many small things that mean so much to somebody else. It’s like sending a care package to a kid who’s sick and it changes his whole day and his week. It might be doing mission trips and just knowing that the small amount of time you’ve given does impact your life. You can make a difference. That’s probably the biggest thing—knowing that spending time with people and helping them really makes a difference in the world. I think a lot of people become desensitized to so much of what’s going on and think, “Why bother? It doesn’t matter.” But it does matter. It matters to those people and it essentially matters to you. That’s the beautiful thing about serving. Serving also keeps your priorities in line. I’m reminded of just how much a small amount of time can make a large impact whether it’s just talking about your faith or just showing Christ-like character.
Bonham: Are you ever amazed how you’ve emerged from living on a small farm in Indiana to traveling the world and making a significant difference in the lives of others?
Riley: Yeah, I’m just amazed at how God has used me and allowed me to share Him with others. Just being a vessel is humbling and it’s amazing that He allows us to do that. He allows us to be a part of who He is and what He’s trying to say to this world. I didn’t want to leave the state of Indiana and here I am going to Africa and trying to use the gifts and abilities God has given me to make a difference. So much of serving is about being open minded about where He’s guiding you and continually seeking His will. It is amazing to sit back and see His plan unfold for your life and how you are able to touch others and bless them and how you receive a blessing in the process.
Bonham: When did you start to understand what was going to be required of you in order to fulfill your Olympic dream?
Riley: There was never an exact time period that caused me to understand what was going to be required, rather it was because of my work ethic and training that I put myself in that position for it to be attained. I was never the most talented athlete. I have always had the dream of playing in the Olympics and then from a young age I began to train with that ultimate goal in mind.
Bonham: What was the most difficult circumstance you had to overcome during your journey as an elite international competitor?
Riley: Being content yet confident in whatever role the team needed me to play. I knew my role as the 12th person on the USA team was not to be a significant contributor in the games, yet I had to figure out what it was that I could do to help our team be successful and at the same time be prepared and confident if I was called to play a greater role at any time.
Bonham: How did your faith help you through that situation?
Riley: My faith teaches me to work at everything with all my heart as if I was working for the Lord and not for man and to clothe myself in humility, not thinking of myself higher than others.
Bonham: Can you think of a specific story where humility helped you through that time?
Riley: Every day in practice I had the opportunity to guard Lisa Leslie, one of the best players in the world. It would have been very easy for me to just accept the fact that I was not going to play very much, and just go through the motions. My faith calls me to work as hard as I can, and because of that, I was helping Lisa and the rest of our starters to prepare the best they could for the challenging games that they would face. I tried my best to exhibit humility and put the ultimate goal of helping my team win a gold medal ahead of any personal desires I might have had.
Bonham: How do you hope that your life and the public example you’ve shown inspires athletes, young people, women and sports fans?
Riley: After enjoying so much success in the sport that I love, I only hope that people remember me for how I have been able to use that platform to make a positive difference in the world. I pray that my story gives young women the confidence that they too can overcome whatever obstacles might be in their way and accomplish the desires of their hearts. Mostly, I hope that people see me living out my faith by how hard I compete and by treating others with the utmost respect and love.
Check out Chad Bonham’s book Glory of the Games featuring Olympic athletes such as Kevin Durant, Shannon Miller, Dave Johnson, Josh Davis, Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley, Michael Chang, and Tobin Heath.
(Photos courtesy of San Antonio Silver Stars; Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Ruth Riley)